As he prepares to move on from The Daily Show, the host of the upcoming Colbert Report gets his Ulysses on.
Thu Dec 16 2010
It's not just his shtick: Stephen Colbert actually is smarter than you. The poker-faced correspondent from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is famed for his wrongheaded but smarmily confident TV persona, but it turns out that Colbert, 41, is a devout Catholic with the intellectual firepower to back up his religious and political lampoonery. He quotes Shakespeare and Robert Hayden at the drop of a hat, and seems equally comfortable parsing theology and the foibles of media personalities. Burnishing his brainiac profile, Colbert will be performing in the 24th annual Bloomsday fete at Symphony Space, the celebratory reading of James Joyce's Ulysses ("Bloomsday" refers to June 16, 1904—the date of the events of the novel). For those who just want the funnyman to riff on the news, Comedy Central has announced that Colbert will host a spin-off of The Daily Show this fall, to be called The Colbert Report. Around the same time, the movie version of the TV series Strangers with Candy (which he co-wrote and acts in) will be hitting theaters. Alternating goofy with grave, Colbert chatted by cell from his home in Montclair, New Jersey.
Are you enjoying your Daily Show summer vacation?
Actually, I just came back from a week at sea. I raced with seven other guys I grew up with in South Carolina. We sailed from Charleston to Bermuda.
Did you captain the ship?
No, I was morale officer, chaplain and cook, which all came together during grace.
You're reading a couple of chapters from Ulysses for Bloomsday. Fess up: Have you actually read the whole thing?
I had to take a course.
When was that?
In Chicago, about 12 years ago. And you know, it's so complicated that we didn't discuss anything in the book; he merely lectured about what we were going to read the following week. If you read it out loud, it's a piece of cake.
Any advance details on The Colbert Report?
As The Daily Show is to headline-driven news, the Report will be to personality-driven news, like O'Reilly or Hannity. It's what [the host] thinks about the story as much as the story itself. That's just a beautiful circular logic of importance. It's the same as my correspondent game on The Daily Show: I am poorly informed, but I have a strong opinion; I'm like a battleship on patrol, gonna fucking crack this story wide open—but I don't quite understand what I'm talking about.
If you're following in the footsteps of O'Reilly, should we expect stories about lewd phone calls to employees?
If someone is willing to receive them. I'll be hiring on that basis. Ladies?
You weren't always this suave. I read that you're a reformed Dungeons & Dragons player.
I got D&D the first week it came out and I played it incessantly until I was 17, at which point I got a girlfriend. I was beyond outcast. I was barely distinguishable as a member of the society of my school.
Were you cool in college?
I started off at Northwestern University in the theater school, wore a lot of black, had a beard, and I was a poet-slash-jerk, very much "Let me share my misery with you." I did a lot of experimental theater. And it didn't matter if it was only for three people: We touched 1.5 of them. I definitely was going to be a serious actor.
I could see you playing the puritanical Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
Malvolio would be so great! That play is perfect, because of all the public scolds we have now. I mean, think of [the character] Toby Belch's line, "What dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there will be no more cakes and ale?" That's a great line for our times.
You created The Daily Show religious-satire segment, "This Week in God." How do you square your Catholicism with comedy?
I love my Church, and I'm a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout. I was raised to believe that you could question the Church and still be a Catholic. What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That's totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ. His kingdom is not of this earth.
Have you ever done a Daily Show segment in which the interviewee was so hypocritical, it almost wasn't funny?
Well, in 2003, I was in Alabama to cover the [former state chief justice] Roy Moore Ten Commandments monument thing, and I spoke to the head of the Christian Coalition down there. The whole time, the Coalition guy kept taking phone calls about tax cuts. He also made a few mistakes on tape that could have been very damning to him, but he got me to promise that I wouldn't say what they were. It was painful to not run them, but we didn't.
Sounds like you came dangerously close to being a real newsman.
No, it would have been funny, but embarrassing for him. I would have liked to satirically rough him up, because I thought he was bullying people with his religion. But I promised. And that's the kind of work we do on The Daily Show: You have to maintain a level of humanity.
Bloomsday on Broadway XXIV is at Symphony Space June 16 at 7pm.